Meagan Helmick: Dedicated to public health education in the classroom and beyond
In April 2020, with students learning remotely and Radford University Carilion (RUC) operations significantly modified due to the COVID-19 pandemic, assistant professor of public health Meagan Helmick, Ph.D., MPH, CHES, considered how she could use her experience to serve others.
“I joined the Southwest Virginia Medical Reserve Corps,” Helmick said. “I wanted to volunteer at call centers or health departments to answer questions related to COVID-19. As a public health educator, I have always been passionate about helping and teaching people on health-related topics. This was a way to continue doing that during the pandemic.”
Helmick lives in Galax, so she signed up with her local Medical Reserve Corps (MRC). At the time, there were only 50 cases in that health district. Helmick hoped that she would help a few times, and then the pandemic would subside.
“Unfortunately,” Helmick recalls, “on my first day volunteering at the health department, it all started to ramp up.”
With her extensive public health expertise and her enthusiasm for her new role, Helmick found herself becoming a go-to resource at the MRC. After volunteering for only a week, she completed a certificate in contact tracing from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) to further her knowledge related to the pandemic.
“I am still an active member of the MRC, and I serve as a county captain for the Galax area,” Helmick says. “I help facilitate COVID screening events as needed, and I am a point person from the main office to the volunteers in the field.”
Helmick’s passion for public health motivated her to continue her volunteer work beyond the MRC. From May 2 through June 12, she volunteered over 130 hours at the health departments in Carroll, Galax and Grayson counties.
“I did negative test result phone calls and patient monitoring calls, which is where we call cases and contacts to check in and make sure they are okay,” Helmick said. “We also document symptoms and arrange testing if contacts are symptomatic.”
For the last three weeks of her time volunteering, Helmick was also doing contact tracing by calling contacts of new cases and explaining to them the need to quarantine and what was expected.
By late June, Helmick was spending so much time as an MRC volunteer at the Carroll County Health Department, she was asked to apply for a job as a contract employee doing case investigation. She applied and began working 40 to 60 hours a week interviewing patients with new cases, investigating possible exposures that may have led to a new case, contacting employers of cases and identifying potential contacts of the case.
“I find so much fulfillment out of public health,” Helmick said. “Until this pandemic passes, I will show up and do my part to help.”
Helmick currently works in the Mount Rogers Health District and credits district director Karen Shelton, M.D., and epidemiology nurse Julia Banks as crucial to helping identify possible outbreaks while trying to mitigate the spread.
“I wish I could tell you that I will be out of a job next week,” Helmick said. “Unfortunately, cases in our health district continue to rise. I will work as long as they need me to. Because I am a nine-month employee at RUC, I am able to work full time over the summer until I start back in the fall.”
Helmick added that the faculty members in Waldron College of Health and Human Services at Radford University may be approved for a certain amount of regular clinical time. Many academic programs at RUC are part of Waldron College, including the public health program. Helmick says she plans to continue her work as a case investigator as long as she can until those hours run out.
Due to Helmick’s passion for public health and first-hand experience with the pandemic, she can’t help but remind everyone to, “wear a mask, practice physical distancing, wash your hands and limit unnecessary interactions with people outside of your homes.”
The MRC is the volunteer arm of the Virginia Department of Health (VDH). A variety of volunteer and paid positions are available. Anyone interested can sign up to volunteer, with no minimum hours required to serve. Apply at www.vdh.virginia.gov/mrc/apply-to-volunteer/.